Populism, and the Stereotypical Trump Supporter (Part 2)

President Trump rallies in Johnson City, Tennessee, in November 2019. (Photo: News Service of Florida)

1. The “Traditional” US Political System and Populism

Section 1 will briefly discuss the traditions and the evolution of the United States political system, providing a historical background for the economic and political analysis discussed later in Section 2.

  1. There is an extremely sophisticated system of checks and balances among the President, the Congress, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy at both the federal and state levels, in addition to the separation of power that already exists between the federal government and the state governments. (This exemplifies pluralism).
  2. Although there are limited retention elections for local judges in some states, there is no election for Supreme Court justices, or any other federal justices for that matter. The President and the Senate have the powers to appoint and approve federal justices, who manage the judicial branch of the government. (This exemplifies both elitism and pluralism).
  3. For a century after the country’s founding, people who had substantial suffrage were only wealthy white male US citizens. Different means of disenfranchisement were used to bar the “non-elites” from participating in the political process, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. (This exemplifies elitism).
  4. This is rather symbolic, but the word “democracy” never appears in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the United States Constitution. That is to say, “democracy” (or “liberal democracy,” more specifically) was not a core ideal upon the founding of the American nation. In contrast, words such as “free,” “liberty,” “justice,” “property” were mentioned repeatedly in the two official founding documents of the United States.
Graph 2: A simplified chart of the US political system in 1789, excluding the judiciary and the bureaucracy, based on the four types of decision-making systems mentioned in Graph 1. Notice that the only element of majoritarianism (within two levels before a final decision could be made) was the presidential election, which was still regulated by state-legislature-chosen Electors in most states until the 1830s.

2. Economic Analysis of Trump’s Proposed Policies and His Supporters

Following Karl Marx’s “base determines superstructure” axiom, this section will analyze the economic reasons for which the stereotypical Trump supporters support Trump’s political platform (anti-immigration, anti-globalization, protectionism, etc.). There are undeniably some cultural factors involved in the rise of ring-wing populism in the US as well (e.g., religion, white nationalism, identity politics), however, the improbability to quantify such cultural variables would render the analysis of them too sophisticated, and thus they will not be discussed in this particular article.

Fervent Trump supporters holding a boat parade in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. (Picture: Politico).
Graph 3: Since 1990, labor costs have been steadily rising in the US, while robot prices have been decreasing (source: Jonathan Tilley/McKinsey).
Graph 4: In the US, industrial robots are mostly concentrated in the Rust Belt (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin), whose manufacturing industry has also been negatively impacted by globalization. (Graph: Brookings Institute, 2015).
Graph 5: Robot Intensity in Republican-leaning states is more than twice as that in Democratic-leaning states (source: Brookings Institute, 2015).
Graph 6: The number of federal criminal arrests and suspects prosecuted for immigration offenses has drastically increased since Donald Trump assumed presidency.
Trump’s supporters often claim themselves to be the “silent majority.” (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).
Graph 7: The number of manufacturing jobs in the US has been declining quickly after China joined the WTO in 2001 (source: Market Watch). In short, this is because Chinese workers, relative to their American counterparts, were more willing to accept less pay, more willing to work overtime, and were working much closer to China’s enormous market.
Graph 8: An abandoned automobile manufacturing plant in Detroit, Michigan, the city that became the largest US city to file for bankruptcy in 2013. (Picture: Patrickklida/Wikipedia).

3. An America Divided: Result of High Income Inequality

Graph 8: Income inequality in the US was increasing sharply from 1980 to 2016 (source: the 2018 World Inequality Report). In addition, income inequality in the US has been increasing at an even faster rate in 2020, as tens of millions of working-class Americans lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Graph 9: The real US median household income has hardly increased since the beginning of the 21st century (source: Political Calculations). Even though the US economy grew quickly during the past two decades as a whole, the average American did not benefit from the growth of the national economy.
“Occupy Wall Street” protesters in New York City, 2011. (Picture: Paul Stein/Flickr).
  1. Stigmatization of socialism: Due to the Cold War, many middle-aged Americans grew up with a naturally ingrained distaste of the Soviet Union’s “socialism” or “communism,” and would unconditionally side with liberalism whenever “socialism” attempts to infiltrate the Land of the Free. This sentiment is also commonly found in other regions of anti-communist (Red Scare) traditions, such as Hong Kong SAR and South Korea, where the poor and unsatisfied majority would often turn to right-wing populism instead of leftist ideals to express their discontent of the capitalist establishment.
  2. Bourgeois nationalism: “The people” in America are very diverse and divided. “The people” may include the stereotypical Trump supporters (working-class whites in rural areas), white-collar workers in large metropolises, ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Latinx Americans, and marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, while one group of “the people” may detest PC culture, another may support it and denounce such refusal to accept PC culture as racism or sexism (which certainly remain significant societal problems in today’s America). The irreconcilable social and cultural divide among the working-class Americans prevents them from collectively initiating a class warfare against the capitalist elites.
  3. Rugged individualism: It is undoubted that rugged individualism is a core part of the traditional American culture and the American identity. This particular type of individualism, which originates from the nation’s pursuit of independence and its frontier culture during the Manifest Destiny, emphasizes the individual’s self-reliance and independence from societal or governmental interventions, making collectivism and socialism unfavorable in the eyes of the American people.

References:

1. Alvaredo, Facundo. Zucman, Gabriel. Saez, Emmanuel. Piketty, Thomas. Chancel, Lucas.”The 2018 World Income Inequality Report (English Version)”. World Inequality Lab.

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Alex Z

Alex Z

First-year college student at Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University. Loves writing articles in English, Français, 中文 whenever he has free time. Sapere aude!